Archive for the ‘Reminiscence’ Category

From Bears to Tigers to Snakes, Oh My.

7 August 07

Hey, did I forget to tell you I ate a fried scorpion the other day? Well, I did and it tasted like a potato chip. I was having dinner with my students and, although I was totally freaked out (I grew up in a house full of little non-deadly scorpions and I fear and loathe them.), their encouragement bolstered my nerves. I popped it in and… seriously, like a potato chip.

Anyway, that wasn’t supposed to be the point of this post. I wanted to talk about a movie I just watched, Two Brothers (called Two Tigers in Chinese). If you haven’t seen it, it should be available on DVD. Watch it. Do you remember the movie The Bear? I remember seeing that movie in the theater. It was incredibly moving. Two hours of the life of a bear – “bear-ly” any human acting. (haha). Still, the emotions and motives of the bear were clearly visible and anyone who did not empathize with that giant beast and little cubs probably needs to watch it again. Two Brothers is like that. The tigers are actors, too. I don’t want to give too much plot away, but when they meet again after all that time and recognize each other – I bawled!!

The movie was filmed around Angkor Wat in Cambodia. In fact, the temples of the Wat complex feature prominently. The temples and landscape are stunning, and other than the obvious addition of  extra plants and vines inside the temples, that is how they look. (Add in a few hundred package tourists posing in front of everything!) Warning, watching this movie will make you want to visit. And why not? South-east Asia is fast becoming my favorite place and I’d love to go back to Cambodia. We might be in Vietnam soon…

And what are the snakes I refer to in the title?  In the opening scene of the movie, a close up is made of a particularly vile looking snake. Seeing that snake instantly catapulted me back to Monteverde, Costa Rica. Years ago, the DH and I took a weekend trip to the cloud forest and jungles there. (Extremely beautiful, supposed to be full of amazing wildlife. Unfortunately, we clomped through the jungle a bit too loudly and saw nothing! In fact, the highlight of the trip was when we both fell asleep, in the shade of a tree, waiting for the bus back to San Jose, and woke up an hour later only to find the sun had moved slightly and the right sides of our faces had turned bright red!)

One of the features of Monteverde is a small serpentarium – a reptile house with examples of all the slimy, creepy fauna that inhabit the nearby jungle. We spent a good hour or two going through, looking at all the snakes, spiders and lizards. When we reached the Fir de Lance, one of the deadliest snakes in Costa Rica, we couldn’t see the snake. We kept looking and looking, with our faces right up against the glass. Oh well, we thought, he is pretty hidden in that tree branch. That is when we realized that not only was there no padlock on the cage, like many of the other cages, but the whole locking mechanism was wide open.

I cannot confirm that the Fir de Lance was on the loose…nor could I deny it. Once this realization dawned on us, we got the hell out of there. Looks like I am not the only one. When searching google for the name of the snake, I found this: scroll down to the picture of the boulders and read.

Serpentarium in Monteverde – I’d think twice. Cuddly, feel-good movie about two tiger cubs in Cambodia – a better choice!


Driver’s Ed

9 April 07

Driving a car really shouldn’t be that difficult. There are things to learn like the traffic rules, how to control the car, the etiquette of the road. Then there are maneuvers that require more practice and skill, like parallel parking and reversing. These are all things easily learned and put into use everyday by millions of people.

The number of private cars in China is climbing. Everyone wants to trade in their flying pigeon for a Volkswagon or a Suzuki. (Or even a Great Wall – China’s own car designs are improving every year.) What does this mean for China’s roads? It is hard to imagine them getting much crazier. On my 2 kilometer ride to work, I witness countless near miss accidents and pass through three “hot zones” – areas so congested and rife with careless disregard of life, limb and traffic rules it is pointless to try describing it. The good news is everyone is moving at less than 30 km/hr. (Here is a bit of imagery to give you a flash of what it is like: people crossing 3 lanes of traffic without looking, motorized tricycles driving the wrong way down the wrong lane without fear, long trucks blocking all lanes of traffic for as long as they want as they attempt to turn into a road already packed full of trucks, pony & wagon travelling down the middle of the road, passenger buses rolling full tilt through the traffic light on red, several policemen congregating on the side of the road, laughing and talking as mayhem reins all around them… I could go on and on! And as I have seen on Youtube videos of India & Africa, China doesn’t even seem all that bad.) (And Dad – there is no need to worry. It all happens in slow motion.)

In an attempt to understand how Chinese people learn to drive, I accompanied my Chinese friend, I., to her driving lessons this weekend. I. has been attending classes at a local technical college for several months. She has already completed 2 of the required 4 examinations to receive her license. I figured with so many examinations to pass, Chinese drivers must really be getting quite good driving educations. Hmmm. Not really, at least not in my opinion. (Not that American driving education is so great, either. Many of my European friends are appalled that I received a driver’s license without any ability to drive a car with standard transmission.)

As with most education in China, the emphasis is on rote learning of small details that have little practical value. An example.

One of the driving examinations tests the applicants ability to back the car into a garage. Fair enough, that is a useful skill. However, the teaching of the skill goes something like this: Back up until the piece of masking tape on the side of the passenger window is in line with that pole in the distance, then turn the steering wheel completely to the right. Turn until the masking tape in the rear right window is in line with that pole, then stop. Back straight until the masking tape… bla bla bla. I wonder if these students were faced with a car and garage with no masking tape and poles, could they get the car in the garage? In order to pass the exam, the maneuver must be executed precisely with no error.

The street driving portion of the exam requires the applicant to drive straight ahead at a constant speed, then pull over to the side of the road, and then pull back onto the road. They are not really instructed on merging, overtaking, turning around, navigating traffic lights, etc. I was stunned when immediately upon entering the car, no one bothered with seat belts. No one looked at their mirrors, either. In fact, the rear view mirror was turned completely away from the driver. Scariest of all, when joining another road, no one bothered to even look at the merging traffic. The assumption is that anyone coming from behind will simply move out of the way.

Despite the lack of practical, real world instruction, students are expected to parallel park flawlessly, in only one move. Who cares if they don’t know they have to stop at a traffic light or how to merge, at least they can park their car efficiently. (**sarcasm**)

I contrasted all of this with my own experience learning to drive. I took summer “driver’s ed” – a rite of passage at high schools all across America. I sat in my little simulator watching films from the 1970s as I navigated my sim’s steering wheel along with the film. Later, we drove around town in the little Chevy Cavalier driver’s ed car, the kind with an extra steering wheel and brake added to the passenger seat. My town was all of 2,000 people and two traffic lights, so this wasn’t very intense training. Sometimes we drove to the post office so our teacher could drop off his mail. Or we’d go up to the Circle K to get candy bars and soda. We drove down a lot of country roads with practically no traffic at all. I didn’t really get to put any of this training to much use, however. Only a couple of months after getting my license I moved to Kuwait, where driving wasn’t allowed until 18 years. Even then, I wasn’t sure I wanted to drive at all. The Kuwaitis have fabulous roads but they take to them with a speedy vengeance the likes of which I had never seen. Our favorite activity on the way to school everyday was surveying the road sides for evidence of fiery high speed crashes.

I’ve had my driver’s license for over 15 years but I haven’t driven in two years and I still don’t know how to drive a stickshift. In fact, I’d say I’m probably always gonna be a reluctant driver. I much prefer the passenger seat. (And if that seat is on a train even better.)

Unfortunately, there are millions of newly-middle class Chinese just dying to get behind the wheel. Let’s hope that is dying in the figurative sense.

The Yellow Ribbon

11 December 06

The day I heard about the invasion of Kuwait, August 2nd 1990, I was 14 years old and I didn’t want to be a nerdy kid who cared about world politics. In my school that got you nowhere. I wanted to care about the latest band, the latest song, shopping & hairstyles. (Like how to get those teased bangs even higher!)

I distinctly remember telling my dad, “I don’t care that the Iraqis invaded Kuwait, what does it have to do with me?”

Boy, did I set myself up for something big that day.

A few weeks later my brother was among thousands of US soldiers taking up residence in the Saudi desert. (And so seriously bothering Osama Bin Laden that his US hatred fully solidified.) Not that the US soldiers were thrilled to be in the land of the two holy mosques, my brother recalls that the Saudi desert was just heat, sand, heat, sand, heat, sand and heat.

I thought at this point, okay, so the Iraqis invading Kuwait really did have something to do with me after all. I couldn’t believe that my brother was in the middle of it all. (Or that I would be there in less than two years time.)

I started wearing a yellow ribbon – that is what you do in America if your relative goes to war. I decorated my locker at school with photos and ribbons. Me and another girl, who I hardly knew, were the only two with any relatives in the desert. One day I found my father’s old Army dog tags on a chain. He had worn them during his time in the army back in 1964 – he was in Germany and was extremely lucky to miss out on the horror that was Vietnam. I took his old dog tags and decorated them up with yellow ribbons. I wore them everyday, everywhere.

I don’t know if my brother knew it at the time, but he was my hero. Not because he was a marine serving in the gulf. But because he was my big brother. I worshiped him, even though he mostly ignored me, or farted on me if he did notice me. (I bet he is proud of that memory.)

The yellow ribbons started to fade and unravel quickly, and they had to be replaced often. In an effort to be adequately covered, I took a short piece of ribbon and entwined it through several holes in my tough leather motorcycle jacket.

Later, when I was myself in Kuwait, and someone caught sight of the yellow ribbons on the jacket, they asked me why an American was wearing the color of the “Remember the Kuwaiti POWs campaign.” I explained what it means in America and how my brother had been part of the military during the Kuwait invasion and liberation. He seemed shocked. He didn’t expect that my family had been involved in the war, only in the aftermath – the rebuilding. I wasn’t wearing the yellow ribbon in memory of the POWs, but I did know what it was like to wait for someone to come home. To hope for that, and to cry for that.

These memories came back to me this weekend as I watched the HBO documentary “Baghdad ER,” when I saw all those buff soldiers with their close-cropped hair and tattooed skin, injured and hurt. Could’ve been my brother. Those soldiers are all somebody’s brother, son, husband, father, uncle, or nephew. (And someone’s wife, daughter, mother, aunt or niece.) Someone out there is feeling what I felt all those years ago – the waiting and the uncertainty. Except for now it is all so much worse, so much more cloudy, so deadly, so unending and in many ways, so senseless.

If you haven’t already, watch Baghdad ER – available from It will break your heart. I thought that I would be prepared for it, having spent my childhood watching MASH and China Beach. It is devastatingly real.

I still support the troops, although I no longer wear a yellow ribbon. The yellow ribbon is only for my memory now, tucked away in a box. I hope that for thousands of other Americans the yellow ribbon can be just a memory, too.